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Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds
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The "Third Culture Kids" Book > Chapter 15: Meeting Educational Needs

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mkPLANET | 85 comments Mod
Becky Grappo
Becky is a perpetual student of kids and where and how they learn best. As President of RNG International Educational Consultants, her goal is to help as many students as possible so that they thrive and find their path in life. Prior to establishing her international educational consulting practice, Becky taught in international and American public schools, served as education and youth officer for the American diplomatic service, and worked in 5 different countries overseas. She is a frequent presenter and writer on the issues associated with educating and raising children and teens in an internationally mobile lifestyle.

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Becky Grappo | 13 comments This week we are discussing some of the challenges expats face when educating their TCKs - whether it be overseas or when they returning to their country of passport. What have been some of the greatest educational challenges that you have faced? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

message 3: by Donna (new)

Donna | 1 comments As a parent of four TCKs, I found their education to be an annual juggling act. We had to choose the right option for each kid each year. Since we moved several times while on the field, and while back in the States, we tried to keep our kids in a stable educational situation through high school by sending them to the Black Forest Academy. Before that, we kept them with us in local public schools, even in Spain. The worst decision we made was to interrupt their school year with an international move once. It was a very hard adjustment for all of them. Really, the best people to run questions pertaining to a TCK's education to are others who had to make the same kinds of choices. I found that other missionaries could offer a lot of wisdom.

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Jared (jaredf79) | 27 comments One of the biggest educational challenges was moving so often during primary/elementary school. Even within the same country, different provinces have different standards and I found myself behind in some areas. Thankfully the differences were never too great that I couldn't work on them and improve.

Growing up overseas, I was very glad that I was able to be part of the regular school system. It exposed me to the culture and made me feel like I belonged--even though kids kept asking me how to say some word in English. I've only heard stories about boarding schools, but I think I'm glad to have had my experiences. I was also able to live with my parents year-round. I couldn't imagine anything else.

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Peter Young | 8 comments It was a group discussion at the dinner table for me... dad would say, "We're moving to Australia and now we will vote! You boys can vote for 1) we will move and we will love it, or 2) we will move and you boys will hate it... OK... now let's vote!" And my brother and I would look at each other and pretty much decide that we would vote "loving it"... and so the educational indoctrination in the new country was never smooth but the family "unit" was fully intact. That said, we never had any issues in integrating into new schools - in part because - we DID have a family to fall back on. The tougher transition in "schooling" was when my brother and I went off to college in the USA. With the "family" 6,000+ miles away... we realistically did not have the "family" to fall back on and so we were on our own. That is tough when all of a sudden you are not only taking college [academic] classes but also having to learn so many things about America... its culture and the [new] language [slang/idioms] and simply how to drive and follow new rules. I grew up where the drinking age was essentially 14... so it was no huge deal for me getting back to the USA and "trying to buy beer"... that thrill and desire was long gone and I had gone through my "drink until you puck all over" phase. College was very tough to navigate as a TCK coming back after living overseas in 5 countries over a 17 year period... really tough!

message 6: by Joel (last edited Aug 06, 2015 06:31PM) (new)

Joel Kretzmann | 1 comments A psychologist took advantage of his power to approve my return to a college, I did not particularly want to return to. It destroyed all my college money, since he never bother to say anything & tell me he communicated with the college. He as a Carl ROger devotee, I have since learned it was up to me to take responsibility for the opportunity. Little did he know, that in the Philippines he would be considered a insulting dog. Americans think they know everything. I hope your profession have way enlighten many of your laggard colleagues. Are psychologist really taught to be so stupid?

message 7: by Becky (last edited Aug 06, 2015 09:00PM) (new)

Becky Grappo | 13 comments Yes, I agree that those who have "been there" have some great advice to offer. Did your children ever find it difficult to reintegrate back into the school system of their country of passport?

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Becky Grappo | 13 comments I like the way you framed moves in such positive ways, and encouraged your children to choose to make it a move they would love. But sometimes that's easier said than done...did they ever struggle with that at all?

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Becky Grappo | 13 comments Jared, did your children ever have a hard time being the "foreigner" in a local school, or were the other students always accepting of them?

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Becky Grappo | 13 comments I wonder if any of the readers have ever had children with special learning needs. If so, how did you deal with them while overseas?

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Drie | 3 comments I grew up in Africa, lived in 3 different countries. Went to international primary schools in Malawi, local secondary schools in Zimbabwe and transitioned to university in the Netherlands. Going to university was my greatest educational challenge. I did not only transition from secondary school to university but also a language transition. Basically all my formal education had been in English but I went to a Dutch university. Not only did I have to deal with a culture shock but with a language change. I found it very tough. To make matters worse was the university I was at was not an international environment. Did any of you have language changes during your education? I did earn my degree and become a medical doctor in the Netherlands but it was not easy. I wrote a guest blog with advice for transitioning well to university. Greetings Janneke @DrieCulturen

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Becky Grappo | 13 comments Janneke, I've had students who have only been educated in English, for example, who then go back to their country of passport to study. They not only have the cultural challenges to navigate, but also the language issues. I really admire them for the way they deal with these big issues and come through them - it takes a lot of hard work to be able to do that. And are you Djiboutijones, too? I read that blog all the time and love it! I never put 2+2 together!

message 13: by Drie (new)

Drie | 3 comments Becky, thanks for your reply. I do not write Djiboutijones, that's Rachel but I wrote a guest post for her. The blog I write is DrieCulturen:
There is more information available now then years ago, I do hope parents prepare their kids well for the transition to college or university. Talk lots, visit universities, meet current students, choose international orientated universities...

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Becky Grappo | 13 comments Oh - that makes sense. I didn't think you were the same person! Thank you again for participating in this conversation.

mkPLANET | 85 comments Mod
Becky, I was wondering if you could elaborate on the experience of TCKs with dyslexia, autism, and other challenges that create unique educational needs. What are some of the challenges they face, depending on their location and the resources that are available? Also, what are some of the more creative ways people have found to meet those needs? And what are some easily-accessible resources that are available for these TCKs?

message 16: by Becky (last edited Aug 08, 2015 08:24PM) (new)

Becky Grappo | 13 comments Those are really great questions, and there are no quick and easy answers for families with special needs children. The good news is that more and more schools internationally, especially American, British, and Australian schools, have learning support services for mild to moderate needs. Yet often these supports are more like tutorial sessions or help for one hour to get a head start on assignments and homework, and some students really need remediation or instruction in special learning strategies. I have seen some expat parents also design their own homeschooling program to meet the needs of their children. For more information, I wrote an article several years ago on this topic. Here is the URL for the article.
(Please note that my email address and website addresses have changed - my new email is should anyone want further information.)

mkPLANET | 85 comments Mod
Thank you, Becky!

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Becky Grappo | 13 comments Have any of you ever considered the boarding school option for your children?

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Heylane | 8 comments I am not a parent myself, but I advise a lot of parents and often the b-word pops up somewhere in the conversation, followed by the parent saying: I could never send my son/duaghter to boarding school.
(especially Dutch parents are very anti)
I always fully agree with the parent. You should never SEND your child to boarding school. You may however consider if it would be good to ALLOW your child to go to boarding school.
There are situations (especially teenagers in situations where there are not a lot of peers and/or few educational possibilities) where it might be the better option to allow the child to go to boarding school.
That doesnt mean it will not be hard at times(both on parent and on child).
I think that depending on the child and the situation sometimes boarding school is the best option.

message 20: by Dee (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dee Miller (takecourage) | 32 comments Heylane wrote: "I am not a parent myself, but I advise a lot of parents and often the b-word pops up somewhere in the conversation, followed by the parent saying: I could never send my son/duaghter to boarding sch..."

Heylane, I would have been right with you on your sentiments about boarding schools thirty years ago. In fact, I recall a rather stressful discussion in 1983, with a couple of counselors specializing in MK issues. It was not a discussion I initiated either. We had somehow managed to run into them casually, and they were so concerned when I told them that our two children would be in boarding school, 1000 miles away from us, by their own choice, before we returned on our next furlough. So concerned that they asked to come by our house and talk about their concerns with us. I was not at all open to hearing what they had to say. I trusted my own sources much more than these two strangers.

None of our colleagues and certainly none of our multi-tiered, patriarchal system had ever suggested that this was something we might want to consider NOT allowing our children to do. While we all reminded our children and one another that there were other alternatives, none of our Mission children had chosen to stay home or go to a British school for their teen years. It was just "the thing to do" to get on a plane and fly off together. (One kid had been forced to come home because he got kicked out, and was finishing high school with a home course.)

I guess we were intimidated and didn't know how to say "no" to the counselors, so we accepted the offer of these bold, but soft-spoken men. Over a cup of coffee, they tried to tell us that they had seen so many kids messed up because of a combination of factors: separation from parents being the obvious one, the sense of abandonment, the wholesale, warehouse effect of living conditions, and "some things that go on there." At that point, my husband and I were basically annoyed at their suggestion that we even consider staying in the States unless we could find better options. How arrogant, I thought! I was too idealistic to consider that they knew what they were talking about.

Today, after MUCH water under the bridge, I would caution any parent to be aware of what I now know--not so much because of our own children's experiences, which were good, compared to the vast majority of MK's I've heard from since writing about sexual abuse in Christian ministries. The stories would tear your heart out, and I'm far from convinced that any of these schools really have their act together on doing more than self-protection after all the exposure. I got nothing but very defensive letters when I tried to advocate or even asked about written policies over the past 15 years. Today I understand that children are extra-vulnerable to sexual abuse because of the very setup of boarding schools. Even under the best of circumstances, with the sleeping arrangements, peer to peer abuse happens, too. Oh, the stories I CAN'T tell!! Corporal punishment is still going on in some, too. And where is a child to go when they've experienced emotional abuse from a dorm parent or staff member? What can they do except bottle it up unless they decide to risk bringing it home to parents weeks or months later when they are home on holiday? Researching a school's past records in dealing with abuse is much harder overseas than in countries where records are easily hidden and no journalists are on the doorsteps when allegations arise. Remember that abuse breeds best in secrecy and in places where you least expect it. That puts Christian boarding schools at the TOP of the list, I'm sorry to say.

The Dutch have it right. Even many of those who have had relatively good experiences learn to stuff things or "protect" their parents from the truth. I believe there are some emotional scars in the majority who manage to escape traumatic experiences. Our own daughter has since said: "There were no good choices. Boarding school was just the best of the options."

While I'm risking getting the same reaction here that I gave those kind and caring men in 1983, I'd advise parents to look at and ask questions of those who have recently attended conferences organized for MK's who went through hellish experiences due to boarding schools, especially those that went to boarding schools really early.

I know I sound like an alarmist to some, but I cannot be silent. Educational quality is superb in some of these schools, but I'd vote for safety over educational quality after all I know now. I do believe that there has been considerable change after all the exposure from decades past. Yet, as recently as three years ago, I heard of another new case at an international (non-mission) boarding school that was horrendous.

Just as with health care, be sure you are giving truly informed consent when you turn your children over to the 24-hour care and nurturing of others. Problem is, unlike hospitals, the risks just aren't presented in the contracts that boarding schools extend.

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Becky Grappo | 13 comments Dee wrote: "Heylane wrote: "I am not a parent myself, but I advise a lot of parents and often the b-word pops up somewhere in the conversation, followed by the parent saying: I could never send my son/duaghter..."

Dee, I am so sorry to hear about the experiences that you describe. No child should ever be in that kind of a situation. That said, I have worked with hundreds of students in boarding school settings who have thrived. These students have found a sense of stability, community, academic support as well as challenge, the opportunity to build strong and healthy relationships with faculty members, and grow in self-confidence. I think that bad experiences can happen almost anywhere, but hopefully they are rare and those responsible are brought to justice.

Michael Pollock | 21 comments My own parents were encouraged to place their four children in a boarding school and refused to do so based on our individual needs. For this I am grateful. I also know many kids who boarded who seem to thrive. However, with Dee, I would encourage strong caution and thorough research into any institution caring for my children 24/7. While at the same time recognizing that abuse, sadly, happens across the spectrum of childhood experience. Caution, research, training for kids and parents and advocacy for our kids is always necessary.

Our own children did not have to consider boarding school as schooling was my international assignment. While much of the school experience was positive, they DID suffer from presumed preferential treatment (cultural expectation), bullying and exclusion that was both personal and cultural, and from the high-mobility of friends during their 9 years. To have faced those issues without parental support would have been, in our case, over the top.

Being present was also tricky because as 'part of the system', I could see some of the flaws and work on them and sometimes find that my effort wasn't enough to create as positive an environment as I wanted for my children and others.

I would not have wanted to miss my TCK upbringing and educational experience for anything. Neither, I think, would my own children, but the educational challenges are real.(and the jury is still out for them as they enter adulthood.) I often say to parents that there is no 'one size fits all' solution and neither is there a 'magic formula' for success.

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Beverly Shellrude | 5 comments Donna wrote: "As a parent of four TCKs, I found their education to be an annual juggling act. We had to choose the right option for each kid each year. Since we moved several times while on the field, and while ..."

In my experience, some missionaries whose kids experienced significant trauma while at boarding schools are unable to emotionally or intellectually acknowledge what their children experienced, and so will defend boarding schools (or cluster schools) regardless of what their children experienced. Also, there is intense pressure in many mission communities to send children to boarding schools so their parents can be assigned to remote areas. For these reasons, when asking other missionaries (or former missionaries) for input, its important to carefully select who you are seeking advice from.

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Becky Grappo | 13 comments Beverly wrote: "Donna wrote: "As a parent of four TCKs, I found their education to be an annual juggling act. We had to choose the right option for each kid each year. Since we moved several times while on the fie..."

One theme that I have heard over and over again is about boarding schools that missionaries frequently use. I know of a few, but perhaps we are talking about apples and oranges.

message 25: by Dee (last edited Aug 10, 2015 05:21PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dee Miller (takecourage) | 32 comments Mike, I'm with you. I'm not at all sure about apples and oranges. Have heard from far too many cases spread around the world. (again MK Safety Net has a list that I'm sure they would be happy to share.)

RVA (Rift Valley) is where our children went. It's the largest mission boarding school in the world. I've heard horrific stories from there of peer to peer abuse, including gang rape of a young boy, now a man, who is now like a brother to me. Yes, he's overcome a lot and would appear to be one who went unscathed to most people. He's a thriver, but no thanks to anyone in boarding school. The first thing the head of RVA said to me, when I advocated for him a few years ago: "If that had happened, we would have known." He dismissed the possibility!

This man went back as a missionary himself, but purposely left the field when his children got to the age that he felt there was no other option but boarding school.

RVA is only one of the schools that those of us in the MK Safety Net have heard from. Mamou survivors made a Sundance film festival video of their story. Sure, there are plenty of graduates who thrive. Some without deep scars. Yet others I've heard from had minimal trauma and still carry deep psychological damage and developmental delay. Ruth's book of letters is a good testimony to this.

The huge difference in boarding schools, orphanages, and other boarding institutions, especially in countries where there are few laws, is that the opportunity for both intimidation and long-term abuse is much greater. They need funding, so are very self-protective and circle the wagons, as most denominations have until insurance companies started coming down on them more.

Counselors who specialize institutional abuse warn that perpetrators may actually look for places overseas because of the protection it affords. Most of the abusers I've heard about have been on the field or at the school for decades and are very skilled at masquerading.

The question is who knows how to really check out an institution in a country where there are no background checks to start with? Most perpetrators never get a record because they have many victims before anyone catches up with them, if they ever do. Also the records are sealed on most cases. One of the reasons schools are protected is it is virtually impossible to prosecute or sue a school overseas, and that's how much of the research comes out on investigations in the western world.

message 26: by Beverly (last edited Aug 10, 2015 05:35PM) (new)

Beverly Shellrude | 5 comments Becky and Michael, both of you made the observation that abuse "happens across the spectrum of childhood experience" when addressing the issue of abuse in missionary boarding schools. This is true, sexual abuse and other trauma does happen in all settings. However, some settings have clearly been identified as putting children and teenagers at high risk or abuse, including children and teens raised in institutions; isolated settings; children whose attachment to parents is disrupted and their is an emotional void; strongly hierarchical social structures; dogmatic and rigid religious beliefs; limited or no accountability for reporting child abuse to local law enforcement; protection of organizational reputation for the sake of saving the lost.

Abuse and trauma can happen anywhere, but children and teens in mission boarding schools (British board schools, too.... but that's for another blog!) are at high risk of being abused. More needs to be written about why missionary parents are still willing to place their children in boarding schools when most would never do so if they were employed in their country of origin.

Becky, if you'd like to send the schools you've heard frequently mentioned, we at MKSafetyNet Canada will send a brief history of each.

message 27: by Beverly (new)

Beverly Shellrude | 5 comments Becky, I just spent some time on your website, and realized your personal and professional experience is not within mission educational systems. If you would like to spend some time understanding the current issues within boarding schools managed by mission organizations, please contact me at and I can put you in touch with individuals who are doing advocacy work in this area.
Beverly Shellrude Thompson

message 28: by Becky (new)

Becky Grappo | 13 comments Thank you, Beverly. I don't work specifically with the mission community so hearing all your experiences is very interesting and informative for me. I'm so sorry to hear of all the trauma and abuse that is appears many mission kids have suffered. So this is why I concluded that maybe we are discussing apples/oranges here when we discuss boarding schools. In the United States, anyone who works with minors must have criminal background checks, even if they are just volunteers. Schools are accredited and have state government oversight for the residential as well as the academic components of their programs. So while abuse can happen anywhere, and should not ever happen in a perfect world, I do think it's rare in the world of U.S. boarding schools. One marker I also look for is whether or not the school belongs to TABS, or The Association of Boarding Schools. It is just one more hurdle schools put themselves through to show their commitment to excellence.

message 29: by Dee (last edited Aug 11, 2015 12:11PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Dee Miller (takecourage) | 32 comments Becky, I'm getting informed, too. I've been away from the mission scene for over 25 years and connected mostly to it now through this ministry to MK's and a few parents who have also suffered greatly because of the inability for these issues to be widely acknowledged. So far as the mission community has gone historically, an MK being sent back to the States to boarding school as Ruth Van Reken was required to do, was replaced by mission boarding schools with the trend being to home school children in their younger years. There have been quite a few of the more independent mission boards (not associated with large denominations) who have given parents no choice at all. Their children are boarded rather than home schooled from their earliest years on. Of course, the younger the children are, the more vulnerable to abuse by adults. As they grow older, the more vulnerable they are to abuse by peers, as well.

Perhaps the thinking now, with technology and things like Skype and e-mail, is the separation is more acceptable. We have friends, both former professors, who were teaching in a war zone and sent their kids to the States, separated for months at a time before the days of technology. On the surface, their adult children appear to be unscathed. They are polished professionals, but the permanent signs are clear. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for those children. To me, it's clear that the professional priorities ranked higher than their children, and I have no doubt the children felt this.

As a psych nurse who has worked with a lot of military families, I'm well aware that separations from parents put kids at a high risk for lifelong emotional issues. I certainly don't buy into the "kids are so resilient" defense that we were led to believe after these years of professional experience.

So I'd like to know more about the trend to consider having today's children going to distant countries for education. Even if the safety issues may be addressed by background checks, this troubles me. Besides that, I need to be brought up to date, too, obviously!

message 30: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Van | 64 comments Very interesting comments from all of you. Just to clarify that in my teenage years I was not in a boarding school in the States but lived with my grandmother and Aunt in a loving, supportive atmosphere where I got to stay in the same school as my friends from church went to, the friends I had known four years before on furlough, etc. Those were actually wonderful years for me outside of not having my parents per se. This time was a great great gift in my life to live with them, keep my friends, learn about life in the US by going to a public school in Chicago, etc.

Many of my MK peers, however, went to boarding schools or hostels in the States during their teenage years (no international schools in many countires that included secondary school level). My boarding school years were first and secdon grade and yes, the style of punishment was rough and would be called abusive in today's terms for sure but then, it was "normal." But that does not include what has to be ranked as deep abuse in any situation or culture.

Personally, I was never sexually abused at school or elsewhere during those years or since. Then my mom decided to home school us before it was "in vogue" and that was a great gift because i had four extra years at home that most of my peers never had.

All to say, however, that by now, even if many things didn't happen to me personally, I have heard stories from countless schools where things happened that weren't good....whether in mission schools, the British schools of that era that Becky referred to, the whole issue going on in Canada at present about First Nation children, or even "normal" public day schools. So I know abuse is real and a boarding school can be fertile territory in any generation but I think it was particularly so before people were aware of it, or even believed it was possible.

I appreciate all so many of you have done to raise awareness so that most missions and international schools and I'm sure the boarding schools Becky refers to now to have child safety policies in place. Ironically, though, even if all the staff are vetted (and no question in the world this process is a 1000% better than before in both mission and secular schools) one place of abuse that can easily happen is student to student just as it can in non-boarding schools. Or even non-educators who work at the school in different roles.

At the same time, one difference in most of the schools where Becky works (I think..correct me if I"m wrong, Becky) the children are not starting in first grade but more attend boarding schools in their high school years to give them continuity and a groundedness for those years when peer relationships are critical and parents may be highly mobile. Communication wtih parents is much more possible in today's world as well.

So there is no question that for some and for different reasons, Boarding schoolis a live option and can be very positive. I've heard many of those stories as well.

For me the biggest impact for most of us who went away at very young ages is simply the whole issue that Bowlby talks about in his studies on attachment issues..that when we were separated from parents we loved at such early ages, even though we might have been in really good schools and not been "abused" in any traditional way. He says when loss is prolonged for whatever reason (he studied kids sent out of London to avoid that bombings of WWII) they will go through the cycle of grief, despair, and detachment and when it is severe, some may never learn to attach again.

I believe fewer and fewer missions that I know of in today's world even let the youngest MKs go away and the last of the organizations I know of that actually required parents to send kids to boarding schools changed their policy a few years ago. I could be wrong on that, but much of the work many of you have done through the years has borne good fruit and may you rejoice in that. But I also know that in the right place and time, all educational options might be good or bad for any particular child and surely i have seen it work both ways with boarding school.

What I love about what Becky does however, is that she works incredibly hard to help families find that perfect fit for their internationally mobile child, no matter which sector that child comes from or what their story of background is and I'm glad she is leading this discussion on education. It's been very interesting to follow..thanks to all who have contributed as well.

message 31: by Beverly (new)

Beverly Shellrude | 5 comments Ruth, I find it difficult that we continue to have this same discussion regarding the safety and protection of children in mission communities; and I'm sure you also find it frustrating too. But there is enough at stake that its important to understand the issues. I will respond in point form.

1. You said, "I'm sure the boarding schools Becky refers to now to have child safety policies in place." Yes, they have child safety policies in place, but they do not have external audits to ensure the policies are being followed. Most missionary schools have been in place for decades and it will take a great deal of intention to change the organizational culture sufficiently that the child safety and protection policies are followed.

2. One of the predominant concerns from the terrible abuses in the Canadian residential schools for aboriginal children is the legacy of intergenerational trauma. Parents who grew up in those school are raise their kids in ways they were raised in boarding schools. Also, there are profound attachment issues because as children they did not have opportunities for normal attachment with their parents/families. Very similar to what many former MK's experience.... even if they start boarding school in later years.

3. The staff are vetted, but most former MK's who apply to be dorm parents are accepted. We again get into the issue of generational trauma..... there is a strong possibility that they will parent as they were parented as children.

4. There is much, much more opportunity for student-to-student abuse in a residential school than in a day school. Many dorm rooms don't even have doors with locks on them!

5. Non-educators at the school should be vetted too.... they often are not, but should be.

6. It is not just the youngest MK's who are at risk of experiencing complex trauma at missionary schools. There are heartbreaking stories of people who went to these schools as preteens and teens who also experienced abuse.

7. For the reasons I wrote in message 26 on this site yesterday, there are many risk factors missionary boarding schools. I wonder what it will take before the risk to children trumps the benefits to the mission and to missionary parents.

This is a link to correspondence posted by a survivor of abuse in a NTM boarding school in PNG. The perp's name is Gary Earl. After this the first part of this correspondence was posted, it was discovered that Gary Earl had returned to the schools to pack up his things in order to retire. His daughter was on staff in the dorm where Gary Earl had victimized Lori, and Gary Earl and his wife were staying with her in that dorm. School was in session and there were children in the dorm. The perpetrator was back at the school, in the same dorm, with access to children. (Because of social media this became apparent and the dorm kids were all taken out... but only because the victim from years past rang alarm bells).

I'm going to post what I wrote a year ago about why systemic abuse continues to be as problematic as it is with mission communities. I think it speaks directly to why most mission schools continue to be high-risk places for children.

message 32: by Beverly (new)

Beverly Shellrude | 5 comments I think that when talking about mission boarding schools we need to include looking at them through a systems framework. This is my contribution to that end.

Systemic Abuse Within Mission Communities/Organizations
By: Beverly Shellrude Thompson
The mission community, on both an agency-level and as a collective community, functions as a closed family system. Closed family systems have some inherent characteristics which have allowed abuse to go unchecked in many settings. The followings are some key areas where this is true, particularly regarding systemic abuse.
In a closed family system, the authorities set the rules. These rules are to preserve the integrity of the organization. Outside input, e.g. civil law, psychology, etc. is seen as irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst when the input is perceived to threaten the organization. The primary directive of leadership is to protect the organization at all cost. The key prerequisite for systemic change in a closed system is referred to as “intentional effort”. Even with intentional effort there are many blocks which make change difficult. Some of these blocks come from within the personal history of mission leaders and staff members, other barriers come from organizational structures.
Leadership of a closed system almost always comes from within, and has been inculcated with the values and norms of the organization. In the case of mission agencies and denominations, almost all mid and top-level leadership fall in one or more of the following categories:
a. MK’s who were raised primarily by people other than their own parents and—as a consequence—this is normative for them,
b. their own children attended international boarding schools
c. they were themselves abused as children in settings where abuse was not considered criminal and/or was never discussed.
I believe the personal and family history of mission leaders is one of the reasons so little has been done to actually implement child protection policies and practices, and to treat child abuse as a crime, rather than as a sin. In Waking the Tiger, Healing Trauma, Peter A. Levine talks about the three common responses to danger or trauma: Flight, Fight or Freeze. In his theory, when we have experienced trauma we often retain, both in our muscle memory and our brain memory, whichever of these three responses we used to survive the trauma. And when we encounter dangerous situations in the future, we instinctively, and unconsciously, use the responses that allowed us to survive the previous trauma.
These responses, Flight, Fight or Freeze may have worked well for past trauma; but they can be very counterproductive in our lives moving forward. There have been times when, as an adult, I heard about events happening which were abusive, and did not speak out. Levine’s theory resonated with me (it did not excuse my silence and inaction, it explained it – I was, and still am, responsible for my silence). My response to danger was to freeze…and that changed only as I became aware of the reasons for my silence and inaction.
There is a reason I mention this in the present context. Many mission leaders were brought up through a closed family / mission system, and experienced abuse or neglect in one form or another. I suspect many of them are incapacitated by their own survival
mechanism of Fight, Flight or Freeze. Because this is one of the contributing factors to why so little change has been implemented, the approach to change requires - out of necessity - some inner healing on the part of mission leaders and staff.
In a closed family system, there is little room for intellectual development done outside the context of “approved” institutions. This makes it very difficult for leaders (who grew up in the mission system) to study in educational institutions outside of the sphere of their religious environment. One salient example of this is that many are not aware of current Trauma Therapies. In part because of this lack of education, victims of abuse seldom receive funding for trauma therapy from the mission organization that employed their perpetrator.
Deviation from the norms within a closed system is quickly and effectively dealt with through shaming and rejection. Although group members may not agree with the values and norms in a closed system, they often find that it is overwhelmingly difficult to leave the safety and predictability of that organization. A person who strongly challenges the norms becomes an outcast of the system. In his book, The Lucifer Effect. Understanding How Good People turn Evil, Philip Zimbardo explains this dynamic very well. I found the book helpful a number of years ago, when I frantically was trying to understand why almost no one in mission organizations (even good people) was proactively attempting to stop abuse or was dealing with it as criminal behavior.
It’s the goal of MK Safety Net Canada to work together with survivors and their supporters to develop new ways to facilitate and expedite change within mission organizations so children and vulnerable adults are safe within their communities and so victims of past abuse and trauma experience justice. This change will happen through reform that intentionally addresses the barriers to systemic change mentioned above, and through legal remedies.
Beverly Shellrude Thompson
MK Safety Net Canada, Board Member
(Updated July, 2015)

message 33: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Van | 64 comments Thanks, Bev, for your comments and all you have done for so many years to make schools safer and to hold people and organizations accountable for what has happened. I have appreciated our personal interactions through the years as well. But in meeting Becky, I learned more about a larger world of non-mission, non-religious boarding schools where there may not be such a strong systemic overlay as in some schools we know about from our backgrounds. So I wonder (I don't know, just wonder) if perhaps those who are reported for abuse of any kind in those more independent schools can more easily be dealt with by the administrators because any such actions would be seen more clearly as that of an individual rather than a statement on a system that some might feel needed to be protected even at the cost ignoring the abuse to the child? In other words, if there is not such a tight system such as you describe above to defend, might perpetrators or would be perpetrators be exposed and dealt with more clearly by the powers that be? I don't know but it is a question that comes to mind as I read through these comments. I would be interested if Becky or others have heard of the same types of stories at all in these more independent schools who at least believe they have more stringent policies and procedures in place to deal with these things? I'm not being naive here but just wondering when some of these systemic factors that you write about are gone, Bev, how does or does that change the story? An honest question and a good place to ask this, i hope, when TCKs of many different backgrounds are following this discussion.

message 34: by Becky (last edited Aug 11, 2015 09:01PM) (new)

Becky Grappo | 13 comments Thank you both for your comments and for contributing to this conversation from which we can all learn about the other's perspectives. I have had many conversations with Ruth about boarding schools and education for TCKs, and we have even co-presented at conferences on at least 4 occasions that I can think of off the top of my head. I will state categorically that any kind of abuse directed against children is not acceptable and should be punished to the full extent of the law. In the work I have done with kids in the last 20+ years, I can also say that I have seen cases of abuse in expat kids from nannies, cooks, gardeners, parents, siblings, and other trusted members of the family's inner circle. This is actually something that should be discussed more openly in expat circles, for even the domestic helpers in a household have never had background checks. So let's all agree to agree that abuse of any kind should never be tolerated.

That said, I would like to raise a defense of the good work being done by good people in boarding schools. I'm thinking of several students as I write this who were able to completely turn around a negative situation by changing their school setting to one that was more supportive and nurturing in a boarding school. In the last 15 years, I have worked with kids with learning disabilities that were not being properly addressed in overseas schools, which not only thwarted the student's academic potential but also left them to struggle with various mental health issues such as anxiety and depression as a direct result of the academic failure. I've seen athletic kids who, while overseas, were not able to access teams, fields or sports facilities in their host communities, but once they went to boarding school, got to play on more competitive teams and feel the pride of being successful and accepted by peers. I've seen singers and dancers who got to perform on stage while in boarding school and learn the self-confidence that comes from that accomplishment. I've seen kids who were beaten down by teachers who did not understand their learning needs, or who faced social isolation and bullying from peers, find community, success and a place where they belonged by being a part of an accepting and nurturing boarding school community.

It is all about finding the right fit for the students' interests, needs, strengths, and weaknesses. In order to know and understand what distinguishes one school from another, in my practice, we get out there and visit the schools. In the last 15 years, I've seen several hundred schools and scrutinize them from both an educator's and a parental point of view. Not all schools are created equal, which is why it's so important to know their cultures, values, and reputation. And a school that might be a great fit for one student may not be a good fit at all for another.

As for relationships with parents, in every case I can think of that I have worked on, the students actually formed closer relationships with their parents as a result of their own increased happiness and boost to their self-esteem. My oldest daughter even went to boarding school and she now works with me on boarding school placements for students. She hopes that she can afford to give the same opportunity to her own children someday.

To repeat, I would never condone any kind of abuse against a child. But to dismiss all boarding school experiences as negative is to do a disservice to those students whose lives have been enriched by these experiences.

message 35: by mkPLANET (last edited Aug 11, 2015 11:25PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

mkPLANET | 85 comments Mod
I want to thank you, Becky, for leading our discussion on meeting TCKs' educational needs. Ruth and Bev, thank you for your input as well. It's an important topic that resonates with many of us, and our conversation here has shed light on some of the most critical issues for parents, students, and others to consider. I can understand why TCKs from across the spectrum of backgrounds and experiences may feel passionately about TCK education. I'm thankful for those who dedicate their lives to ensuring that TCKs are given the best, safest, most meaningful, and rewarding educational experience possible. And Becky, thanks again for facilitating this discussion for us!

A quick note to book club members: As always, please feel free to keep the conversation going in this thread. Please note that while the facilitators have committed to participate during the week of their chapter, they may not be able to continue in our discussions as we move on. Thanks for all your fantastic stories and insights so far, Everyone!

message 36: by Jared (new)

Jared (jaredf79) | 27 comments I was the kid actually. :-) Overall, no, I didn't find it difficult being the foreign student in a local school. The only issue really was being asked how to say something in English.

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